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How Fran Pavley changed the American auto industry

April 1, 2010 |  5:40 pm
Pavley
Eight years ago, Fran Pavley, an obscure California assemblywoman and former civics teacher, proposed something that no government had ever done before: a law to slash the amount of carbon dioxide spewing from auto tailpipes, a major source of climate change.

Thursday, after an epic struggle in which California and other states battled car manufacturers and the George W. Bush administration on global warming all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, the first nationwide regulations to control planet-heating greenhouse gases from vehicles took effect, modeled on Pavley’s law. “I’m very gratified,” said a beaming Pavley (D-Agoura Hills), now a state senator, who attended a news conference with environmentalists at Los Angeles’ Petersen Automotive Museum in L.A. “This will reduce air pollution, reduce consumer costs at the pump... These new technologies pay for themselves in a very short time.”

The standards, negotiated by the Obama administration with the states, auto industry, Environmental Protection Agency and Transportation Department, will raise the fleetwide average fuel economy of new cars and trucks to 34.1 miles per gallon in 2016, an increase of 7.7 mpg from today, and cut carbon dioxide emissions by 26%. The 10-mpg rise from today’s standard could drive up the average price of vehicles by $926, but federal officials say that will be offset by savings of $3,000 in overall fuel costs.

Nationally, transportation accounts for 28% of the greenhouse gas emissions that scientists say have begun to disrupt Earth’s climate. Only electricity generation produces more.

The rules mark the first time the federal government has curbed global warming emissions under the Clean Air Act. Environmentalists credited California’s pioneering fight--beginning with the 2002 enactment of Pavley's law to regulate such emissions from cars.

But Congress is considering new climate and energy legislation that could curb future state efforts to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from stationary sources, as well as the EPA’s authority to do so under the Clean Air Act. “The clean car standards issued today show the extraordinary value of state leadership and EPA action under the current Clean Air Act,” said David Doniger, climate policy director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Current state and EPA authority should be preserved, not preempted, in any new law.”

Charles Drevna, president of the National Petroleum & Petrochemical and Refiners Assn., criticized the tailpipe rule as “harmful,” adding, that “EPA has acknowledged that regulation of vehicle greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act will lead next year to the regulation of stationary-source emissions of greenhouse gases. Such misguided and flawed policy has the potential for devastating consequences to American consumers, businesses, jobs, and the economy.”

California has adopted the nation’s most sweeping climate legislation, requiring nearly every sector of the economy to contribute to slashing the state’s carbon footprint by 15% over the next decade. Emissions from power plants, factories and other industries would be capped, and firms could trade pollution permits to lower costs. Northeastern states are already operating a regional cap-and-trade program for utilities.

--Margot Roosevelt

Photo: State Sen. Fran Pavley. Her 2004 law curbing greenhouse gas emissions from cars and trucks is a model for federal standards. Credit: Brian Vander Brug/L.A. Times

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